Over the past few weeks -- as I traveled abroad, attended holiday parties, and went through my appointed rounds -- I kept encountering people who posed the same question: "What's happened with Obama?" These were liberal Democrats, and they feel, depending on the person, somewhat, partially, or fully betrayed by the president whom they helped elect with their small donations and/or volunteer sweat. These people were truly troubled, some by the expansion of the Afghanistan war, some by the emasculation of the health care reform legislation, some by President Obama's embrace of corporate-world advisers. (This means you, Larry Summers.) I know that my sampling is rather unscientific. But none of the worriers are bloggers or professional progressives who make their living fretting about a presidential drift to the center. They merely are foot-soldiers (or ex-foot soldiers) in Obama's base, and now they find themselves quite perplexed and in desperate need of explanation. (I'm getting a steady stream of e-mails from readers expressing the same concerns.)
Obama's approval ratings have been falling steadily in the past few months. He appears to be having a tough time retaining the support of independents, who tell pollsters they are nervous about his health care reform initiative. Democrats as a group tend to be supportive of Obama and his efforts. Consequently, a White House following conventional rules would put its effort into winning back indies in time for next year's mid-term congressional elections. After all, if the Dems take a beating, it will be Obama's agenda that will suffer.
Yet Obama and his aides should not ignore the spreading anxiety among his liberal fans. The folks who I've talked with -- in conversations that often feel like counseling sessions -- have said they are unlikely to hit the pavement for Obama and the D's in 2010. They felt empowered by Obama's campaign in 2008; they feel alienated from politics today. Disenchantment is not what you want in your base when you're heading toward a tough mid-term election. Given that the congressional races are likely to be low-turnout affairs, any lack of passion on the Democratic side will enhance the advantage the Republicans will probably enjoy due to extended joblessness. (You want to scare yourself? Read this AP article on the economy, which notes that it could take at least five years to bring the unemployment rate to a "normal 5 or 6 percent." By the way, another must-read is a Washington Post front-pager that notes there was zero net job creation in the just-ended decade, compared to 20 to 38 percent net job growth in each of the previous six decades.)
And despite all the campaign hype, there isn't much of an Obama Nation that the White House can mobilize for the coming elections. As Micah Sifry recently noted (picking up on a theme I poked at in the first months of the Obama presidency):
This is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn't happen, in the first year of Obama's administration. The people who voted for him weren't organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests -- banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex -- sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting.
So what's Obama to do? A former Clinton White House aide who has helped the Obama crew points out that the president's big problem has been message development. He has let the health care muddle and his Afghanistan musing eclipse the progressive accomplishments of his first year in office: ending torture, withdrawing from Iraq, devoting $80 billion in stimulus money to clean-energy development, placing Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, moving toward a Gitmo shutdown, increasing government transparency, declaring global warming gases to be pollution that must be regulated, even while cutting an unsatisfying deal at the Copenhagen climate summit. (Slate's Jacob Weisberg argues that Obama has revived liberalism.)
There may be something to this. But the issue is more than mismanaged PR. In recent weeks, Obama has not looked as if he's fighting for anything. Sure, he's working damn hard to get a health care measure through the obstacle-ridden Senate. Yet in this narrative, he's bogged down with the negotiating ins and outs. To those people who don't follow every twist and turn, it doesn't look as if Obama is blasting away at powerful interests and recalcitrant Republicans. He seems to be playing chess in a mud pit. That may win him what he believes is the best bill possible. But such a victory could prove temporary if his natural supporters are not jazzed by it and the GOPers come roaring back to undo or block the reforms enacted.
Obama needs to triumph in the legislative combat; he also needs to keep his troops together and energized. His hawkish decision on Afghanistan makes that all the more challenging. Yet he might still have a chance, if he picks the right targets and throws a punch or two. That may not be his style -- and you should never advise a politician to adopt a course that is not in sync with his or her temperament. But as Obama handles a variety of complex matters -- some with no easy answers -- he will not whip up enthusiasm for his party by playing it cool, as he navigates the nuances of this or that policy dispute. And disappointment is not very empowering.
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